On Monogamy

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

This is a picture of Nick and Nora Charles, a fictional couple who, for me, defines the ultimate in healthy, committed relationships. I realize that, because they are not real, this statement could easily be questioned – after all, it’s not hard to make an ideal out of people who aren’t real. However, the fact that the fictional relationship of a fictional couple popularized in the 1930’s, (a period of time in our culture when the boundaries of marriage remained highly uncontested), still resonates eighty years later lends weight to the excellence of their example.

For those unfamiliar with Nick and Nora Charles, they are the married protagonists of Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel, The Thin Man. The book was later made into a wildly popular film series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Nick is older and Nora younger, and both appear to be happy in their, presumably, monogamous relationship. In this, they are quite conventional. And yet, this apparently conventional relationship allows for the fact that women find Nick quite attractive. In fact, women love Nick, and Nick, it is implied, has loved quite a few in return. As for Nora, men tend to adore her the moment she opens her mouth, and she, for her part, openly appreciates beautiful men.

And yet, the sexual attraction they both engender in, and display towards, members of the opposite sex in no way threatens their superficially conventional relationship. They treat each other, and their marriage with equal parts respect and irreverence, and they make their relationship work in a way unique to them.

Why do I bring this up? Because the dynamic Nick and Nora share is, in my experience, somewhat rare. Their relationship represents an ideal, one that transcends the monogamy vs. non-monogamy debate currently gaining steam in the United States’ liberal / conservative culture war.

Contrary to the rhetoric on both sides of this particular divide, monogamy is neither “natural,” as staunch proponents suggest, nor is it particularly “unnatural,” (though research into our evolution and biology may suggest that humans were, originally, a harem species like many in nature from lions to gorillas).  Monogamy also isn’t “supernatural” as blogger Matt Walsh suggested in a post defending monogamy’s righteous rightness. What monogamy is, is a choice – a personal choice that is made, either implicitly or explicitly, by individual couples.

Nick Nora Tommy

For some couples, monogamy is critical to the health of their relationship. If both partners honor their mutual choice to remain monogamous, then that is inarguably the best choice for them. Whether they make that choice based on religious faith or personal preference doesn’t matter so long as both partners agree.

For other couples, monogamy could, quite possibly, lead to dissatisfaction in what might otherwise be a very happy relationship. As a result, couples that understand this about themselves and their relationship make a responsible choice in choosing non-monogamy, polyamory, or any other form of open relationship. So long as both partners agree to a set of parameters regarding the open nature of their relationship, this is an equally salutary choice. The critical component is that both partners honor the parameters they’ve set.

Nora finds Nick comforting a girl.

Nora finds Nick comforting a girl.

There is no single answer to the question of what makes for a healthy relationship. There are too many variables involved because people are variable. Arguably, the most universal quality shared by members of our species is that we are all individually different. If we were the same, perhaps monogamy, (or non-monogamy), would be the silver bullet. We would have one religion, (or secularism), and there would be little to no conflict over ideology, faith or lifestyle. Very peaceful I’m sure, but also kind of horrible in a culturally dystopic sort of way.

Regarding those who propose that monogamy is the only natural way to love or conduct a relationship, I can only say that the hubris of this viewpoint is astounding. Likewise, anyone who claims that couples engaged in monogamy are either lying to themselves or each other is committing the same error. Non-monogamy doesn’t threaten monogamous relationships any more than monogamous relationships threaten non-monogamy, practically speaking. There is, however, one thing that damages both forms of commitment, and that is dishonesty.

Ironically, what monogamy and non-monogamy have in common is a deep reliance on trust, honesty and respect. Cheating occurs when one partner fails to adhere to the parameters of the relationship they are in. This means that if a man has sex with someone outside of his marriage and fails to tell his wife, that man has cheated, even if the marriage is open. Sex is only a symptom. The dishonesty employed to facilitate sex beyond the relationship’s parameters is the real betrayal, just as it is in instances of so-called monogamous cheating. That dishonesty signals a lack of respect for the relationship and the lied-to partner, and that lack of respect is a killer.

This is why I think Nick and Nora are such a tremendous example of a healthy committed Nick Nora Astarelationship. It wouldn’t matter if their marriage were open, any more than it matters than it is, apparently, closed, (thought there are implications in Hammett’s book, if not in the film, that this may not entirely be the case). What matters is the respect with which they treat each other and their relationship.

Respect breeds trust and implicit honesty, which in turn fosters a dynamic in which jealousy and dishonesty have no place. The fictional relationship of Nick and Nora Charles is an ideal that transcends straw-house arguments and personal ideology. It transcends monogamy and non-monogamy. Theirs is a grown-up relationship, and I believe that, eighty years later, it’s time for the rest of us to grow up.

13 thoughts on “On Monogamy

  1. I have to agree with what you’ve posted here. It is also time for people to “grow up” and stop sticking their noses in other people’s relationships. Life isn’t an all or nothing prospect. There are endless variations in relationships. One size/style/form does not fit all.

    The important thing, as you stated, is Trust, Honesty and Respect.

    • Absolutely, Wordwytch. That’s really what it all comes down to. Hopefully, that priority will eventually overtake the impulse to “stick our noses into other people’s relationships” as you so aptly put it.

    • Dear Wordwytch

      First I’ll have to say thanks to Madeleine for alway’s bringing such a interesting items ,
      her very personal points of view, original observations,
      so very well written, to her followers ( i’m happy to be!)

      It is also time for people to “grow up” and stop sticking their noses in other people’s relationships…”
      Exuse me Wordwytch but that demand to the world that’s eh…a bit late?
      Can you please twitter that demand to the world immediately: also put it on face book,!
      One medium/ two sides of the coin;
      So theres a conflict /contradiction here: we are reading a personal blog
      we sticked our noses into a “mass-media type” that permits us to stick our nose without any restraint
      in let’s say a relation from… a couple in 1930. 😉

      EXPOSING your (nose) personal live , included every little, uninteresting and most profoubly unsignificant stupid detail,
      the most uneducated opinions, all those relations problems,
      now-days more than ever in history seems to be the standard to witch one seem to must behave..
      but also:
      The other side of the medal :
      ” Stick your nose in other people -(s relations) ” is what literature, television media, theatre , movies, journalism – all culture is about and based on:
      24/24 STICK YOUR NOSES, and i’m thankful for that access the internet brought me.

      Social Media changed the behaviour of mankind in a way that everyone who “sticked his nose in other peoples relations before” nowaday’s thinks his or her life
      is worth for other people to read, view pictures or movies from. They are rubbing it into your nose!
      People are addicted to produce “self-expression” to put it mildly and , on the other hand addicted to consume and read and stick noses in..(” self depression” as i frame it from now on 😉

      Maybe the best reaction i can give you here is the opposite:
      STICK YOUR NOSE into interesting people lives, important, intellectual, poetic, rebellious, creative ,
      histories and herstories, use the positive possiblity’s from “culture” in her widest sense
      in the most positive way to exchange ideas, to grow and learn, use it all in favor for your personal growth; for your dreams, your fantasies, your creativity,
      learn from all and invest and share that knowledge in (almost every of) your relations
      ( as a single, in a relation, married, for trio’s, monogamist, swingers, friends you choose, bigamist, polygamist , with mutual consent 😉

      Indeed there are so many realtion-forms that the MOST IMPORTANT ingredients MALIN ( Wordwytch) mentioned
      ( trust honesty aso) forever and alway’s have to be consider as the most neccesary for the relation that you have with yourself..
      and with “every” human you’ll meet on your life-path..
      Beiing interested, profoundly curious in having an open mind, heart and eye ( nose 😉
      ( in this case is of course different than just empty curiosity).
      Empathy & a will to share the best of yourself !

      And that’s why it’s a great pleasure to” stick my nose”
      while being thankful, that i had the luck to
      discover and have the opportunity to dive into the so Cleverboots/blog

  2. To SYTYCS,

    I think you may have missed the point of what I was discussing. It is time for people to stop sticking their noses in other peoples business and trying to tell them what to do in a negative manner. Hence the comments about religion and narrow minded moral and ethical codes.

    As for sending out a ‘demand’ such as you stated… No, that isn’t my place. If people were more aware of their own stated beliefs and actually followed them, we’d all have fewer hassles.

    I love the social media that allows us to communicate in an open manner and thereby share all the interesting things in our lives. To me that is Not Sticking my Nose in where it Does Not Belong. I play with FB, G+ and multiple blogs. I enjoy being able to talk with people and discuss life. Oh, and for the record, since you don’t know me,… I’m Bi. Poly. Pagan. A Freelance writer. A parent and grandparent. Seamstress. Crafter. Maker. CEO of our small computer company. I garden and participate in the Open Source Hardware and Software community. I am perpetually curious.

    • Thank you very much dear Wordwytch.Very nice and an honour to meet you ! Sorry i didn’t introduce myself properly. i’m living on the other side of the world(europe)..and therefore i’m not a native speaker. My sincere apology if i expressed myself incorrectly. I really do appreciate ,understand and totally share myself behind your points of view on all levels ! Futhermore i do see someone else excellency as an important source of comfort in my life.if somebody else is “bigger” than myself ,more beautiful,sweeter,more gifted,more intelligent i consider that to be an invitation to reach to that level,to try to even be better,to imitate,emulate,of for just beiing grateful. Finding very impressive personality’s , very admirable strong , tolerant and determinated women as yourself and our admired host of this blog, is truly a great reward and a permanent eye-and nose opener for me 😉 my “nose ” for honesty, beauty, and authenticty , sources for creativity &inspiration for my personal developement! Since i’m not able to react -a la minute – and “spot-on” to the very surprising issues Madeleine brings to the table since short i am and hope to be a “silent reader” hoping to be able to react on some issues in the future , to share my feelings , to share a look from across the ocean, from europe, to contribute: all for a fruitfull communication , a quest for better understanding.Did i mention that i’m also a man and a man who loves … Loves special women in particually?
      That being adressed to our Host and Wordwytch , signed sealed and deliverd. Perpetually curious., honesty interested…in love , you’ll find me on your side !!!!
      After midnight, in bed, on a tablet, battery low, one handed..sorry for linguistic failures 😉
      With highest respect :

  3. Sorry.Wordwytch….i’ve changed my wordpress-
    name since today from Grafietje ( my beautiful old ,late,catlady) into SoYouThinkYouCanSee….wordpress mistake ?…i’ll sort it out tomorrow XX SyTyCs.

  4. Pingback: On Jealousy | Malin James

  5. Pingback: Perfect Coupling of Monogamous and Open/Poly Relationships – Sex in Words

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